Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Faith and Hope

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 8, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In the novel, Pi becomes stranded on a boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, and he tells the story of how it happened.

A common motif in Life of Pi is the importance of faith and belief. Pi is born a Hindu, and by the age of 16 he is practicing Christianity and Islam as well. He does not understand why people are only allowed to follow one faith, and this even gets him into a little trouble near the beginning of the novel. Although (or perhaps because) his take on religion is a bit unconventional, it plays a very important role in his life.

While on the lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi devoutly prays three times a day. These prayers give him hope and serve as a conduit through which his miseries can flow. He shares traumatic events with God, and never forgets them. Although he had been a lifelong vegetarian, his options on the lifeboat are limited and he is forced into piscivorism. The first fish he ever eats is given a special place in his prayers, and never once forgotten (p. 231; ch. 61).

Pi is under the impression that he could not have survived without his faith. Perhaps this is so, but it could only be so due to the relative weakness of Pi’s character.

It is true that Pi endured great hardships and great suffering, and many people may not have been able to bear as much. His character is not weak by that measure. But the key word in his weakness is “relative.” He was relatively weak because he could not maintain himself without God. I suppose it may be more appropriate to say that he is imperfect, that he is only human. Whatever you call Pi’s limits of character, the picture painted in which God is the only way for Pi to get through great suffering is a distorted and inaccurate one.

Pi goes through harsh struggles and deep despair. On the front lines against his despair is Richard Parker, the 450-pound Bengal tiger. But God is not far behind. God is an important player, but he is not the reason why Pi made it through. Pi’s source of survival, his weapon against despair, is hope. When Pi prays, he finds hope; and with hope comes a reason to keep on living. Despair’s worst enemy is not God, nor is it a tiger: it is hope.

In a situation such as Pi’s, as hopeless as it is, one ought to take all the hope that one can get. Belief in a higher power is just as good a source of hope as any. But the premise that this hope can only come from faith — that there are no atheists in foxholes — is simply false.

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, it could be said that there are no atheists on lifeboats. It would be an equally incorrect statement. In a time of despair, there are many possible sources of hope. Religion happens to be a particularly powerful one. Imagine that, although you are floating on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, God is watching over you. He has helped you to survive this far, and He will continue to do so. He loves you and will always love you. He is omnipresent, so He will never leave your side. If that’s not a hope-inspiring thought, I don’t know what is.

Even so, there are even greater sources of hope. The foremost source would be companionship. Pi had with him a tiger, and even that limited relationship was enough to keep him going. Another human being, who you can make strong bonds with, would be an even better friend. We people thrive on companionship, and cannot last long without it.

Pi’s primary sources of hope were faith and companionship; what others were there? These two were by far the most prominent. But there is another, secular source of hope, which was masked by Pi’s faith but would be apparent in an atheist. Pi survived for many days before he began to truly despair, and he attributed this survival to a miracle. God had been with him. If Pi had been a nonbeliever, he would have been no less amazed by his survival. He would have attributed it to his own shrewdness, his own ability to think in the face of mortal peril. He made it that far, and he could make it farther. His reliance on his own skill would have been just as powerful as reliance on miracles. And in fact, much of Pi’s success can be attributed to his skill. He attributed it to miracles, but Pi was the one who learned to catch fish, Pi was the one who knew how to train Richard Parker. The skill was there, and he would not have survived without it.

The test of will Pi goes through is difficult; I do not doubt that. Maybe because Pi’s life so revolved around religion it would have been impossible for him to make it through without his faith. Such faith is very important to some. But it is not a necessity. There are atheists in foxholes, and there are atheists on lifeboats.


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.

2 Responses to “Faith and Hope”

  1. Matt Helm said

    I would just like to take this moment to define some words. It really gets to me that people don’t seem to know what an atheist or agnostic is.

    Atheist: An atheist is someone who has no religion.
    Theism is another word for religion. A theist thus is someone who has a religion, so an atheist is anyone who doesn’t.

    Agnostic: One who believes he or she does not know (religiously).
    The Gnostics are those who believe they can be saved because they know the true religion. Agnostics thus believe that they don’t.

    Atheist does not mean a specific belief in no god. People don’t seem to get that. Agnosticism doesn’t really have anything to do with religious beliefs at all. People don’t seem to get that either. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive in that someone could not have a religion and believe that they don’t know the true religion. Agnosticism and religion are not mutually exclusive, someone could believe that Christ is their savior and also believe that they have no way of knowing for sure whether or not Christ is their savior.

    I’m sorry for complaining off-topic on your blog but I feel the need to tell someone.

    • I understand, I’ve been in that position many a time. I didn’t mention it in the essay because it wasn’t really relevant, but I think it’s okay to mention in the comments that it’s unfair for Martel to assume that atheists are irrational and therefore would have a sudden deathbed conversion.

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